the case for citizen scientists -- 3/11/20

Today's selection -- from This Idea Must Die edited by John Brockman. Kate Mills, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oregon, argues that there is a place for citizen scientists in research:

"Currently, most individuals funded or employed to conduct sci­entific experiments have been trained in traditional academic settings. This includes not only the twelve years of compulsory education but also another six to ten years of university educa­tion, often followed by years of postdoctoral training. While this formal academic training undoubtedly equips one with the tools and resources to become a successful scientist, informally trained individuals of all ages are just as able to contribute to our knowledge of the world through science.

"These 'citizen scientists' are often lauded for lightening the load on academic researchers engaged in Big Data proj­ects. Citizen scientists have contributed to these projects by identifying galaxies or tracing neural processes, and typically without traditional incentives or rewards, like payment or authorship. However, limiting the potential contributions of informally trained individuals to data collecting or data pro­cessing discounts the abilities of citizen scientists to inform study design, data analysis, and interpretation. Soliciting the opinions of individuals who are participants in scientific studies (e.g., children, patients) can help traditional scientists design ecologically valid and engaging studies. Equally, these populations might have their own scientific questions or pro­vide new and diverse perspectives to the interpretation of results.

An NASA/JPL image from the Zooniverse's The Milky Way Project showing a hierarchical bubble structure. Zooniverse is a citizen science web portal operated by the Citizen Science Alliance.

"Importantly, science is not limited to adults. Children as young as eight have coauthored scientific reports. Teenagers have made important health discoveries with tangible outcomes. Unfortunately, these young scientists face many obstacles that institutionally funded individuals often take for granted, such as access to previously published scientific findings. While the rise of open-access publication, as well as many open-science initiatives, make the scientific environment friendlier for citi­zen scientists, many traditional science practices remain out of reach for those without sufficient funds.

"What we think we know about ourselves through sci­ence could be skewed, since the majority of psychology stud­ies sample individuals who don't represent the population as a whole. These WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) samples make up most nonclinical neuro­imaging studies as well. Increased awareness of this bias has prompted researchers to actively seek out samples that are more representative; however, there's less discussion or awareness of the potential biases introduced by WEIRD scientists.
"If most funded and published scientific research is con­ducted by a sample of individuals trained to be successful in academia, then we're potentially biasing scientific questions and interpretations. Individuals who might not fit into an aca­demic mold but nevertheless are curious to know the world through the scientific method face many barriers. Crowd­funded projects (and even scientists) are beginning to receive recognition from fellow scientists dependent on dwindling numbers of grants and academic positions. However, certain scientific experiments are more difficult, if not impossible, to conduct without institutional support -- for example, studies involving human participants. Community-supported checks and balances remain essential for scientific projects, but per­haps they too can become unbound from traditional academic settings.

"The means for collecting and analyzing data are becoming more accessible to the public each day. New ethical issues will need to be discussed and infrastructures built to accommodate those conducting research outside traditional settings. With this, we will see an increase in the number of scientific discov­eries made by informally trained citizen scientists of all ages and backgrounds. Those previously unheard voices will add valuable contributions to our knowledge of the world."



John Brockman


This Idea Must Die


Harper Perennial


Copyright 2015 by Edge Foundation


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